July 25, 2007

Banning "loopholes"

We've recently witnessed the legal battle over banning words like "rape," "assault," and "rape kit" in a Nebraska rape trial (here) and (here) and now Slate suggests that "loophole" should join the growing list of banned words, this time not in trials but in the context of news reporting. "Loophole," says writer Jack Shafer, is a loaded, partisan word that implies wrongdoing and scandal where none exists (he also adds the verb, "skirt," to his list of words to be avoided by the press). He finds 45 instances of this questionable, non-objective use of "loophole" that have appeared during the last six months in major US newspapers and he cites a few impressive examples.

In case people haven't noticed, language changes. "Loophole," says Shafer (with support of the OED) dates back to the 16th Century, when it referred to a narrow opening in a wall through which defenders could shoot arrows or throw stones at attackers -- a pretty useful and positive meaning in those olden times. Later, following the meaning-change process of pejoration, "loophole" took on the more sinister senses that today associate with finding gaps in the law, such as the tax code, that allow one to "skirt" around what is legally restricted. Shafer lays this change in meaning at the feet of "rhetorical con artists."

Word meanings tend to do this and rhetorical con artists are not the only perpetrators. Some words take on more specialized meanings, as when Old English "deor," a word for animals in general, eventually specialized to refer only to those pesky animals that eat the flowers in my garden and ruin my saplings when young bucks rub the velvet off their antlers, shredding the bark. But that's only my personal pejorative sense of "deer" and mercifully it hasn't caught on. Most people regard deer as beautiful, Bambi-like creatures. Some words generalize far beyond their original specific senses ("quarantine" no longer means 40 days). Others ameliorate, turning a negative sense into a positive one over time ("marshall" is no longer a mere horse servant and "pretty" no longer means sly). So there's nothing very surprising about "loophole" joining the meaning-change process by taking on a pejorative sense. We no longer have much need for small holes through which we can shoot arrows at our attackers anyway, so the word is up for figurative grabs.

Interestingly, Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, says Shafer may be a bit off in his etymology. Garner says that the word, "loop," in the compound "derives from the medieval Dutch verb, lupen, meaning to lie in wait, watch, or peer." He reports that by the end of the 17th Century, it "took on its figurative sense in reference to an ambiguity, omission, or exception in a statute or other legal document. Today this figurative sense prevails." (538)

Whether derived from a  narrow hole in a wall or from the Dutch sense of lying in wait, we find "loophole" in our news almost daily and Shafer may be right that using it can insert a bit of ideology into news reports that may be expected to be objective. Geez, language is complicated, but that's why it's so much fun.

Posted by Roger Shuy at July 25, 2007 01:44 PM